The Tyrant in the Gray Flannel Suit
Traditional American distrust of the centralized state is based on some lessons learned the hard way.


Kevin D. Williamson

Russia’s takeover of Crimea is already so complete that commercial flights to Kiev from the region’s main airport, located outside Simferopol, the regional capital 50 miles from Sevastopol, now leave from the international terminal instead of the domestic one as they did until last week. The shift suggests that Kiev and the rest of Ukraine are now classified as foreign territory.

New York Times, March 6, 2014

There is no one who can be trusted with political power. Lord Acton’s famous epigram — “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — communicates a law of human life that is as inescapable as that of supply and demand: There may be variations along the curve, but the slope is always in the same direction. Even in a stable, liberal society such as our own, we have seen presidents, including the current president, abuse their power for personal and political ends, sometimes with shocking disregard for both law and propriety. The number of generals who have participated in the overthrow of civilian governments to which they swore oaths of allegiance is enough to populate a small army. In politics, great men are dangerous men.

There is very little in this world as dramatic as the coup d’état, but it is not only presidents and princes who are susceptible to the allure of power. New York City enjoys the services of the nation’s best-led and most professional big-city police department, but its officers have been known to abuse their power in ways ranging from the banal to the antiheroic, from taking petty bribes to acting as mob enforcers for the Lucchese crime syndicate. Political power is corruptible down to the level of public-school administrators and DMV clerks.  

Indeed, from the fiction of Franz Kafka to the headlines in National Review, we have seen that it very often is not the great man who gives in most consequentially to the temptation of corruption but the anonymous bureaucrat. This probably has something to do with the passage of time. A president of these United States need resist his worst inclinations only for four or eight years. That may not be enough time for those without a prior education in the field even to learn how to be effectively corrupt, much less to develop and execute a program of corruption. The civil servant is a different matter. After 20 years on the job, suffering the inevitable slights that accompany a bureaucratic career, he has the specific local knowledge and the opportunity to indulge his baser nature. He may also have the motive: Why should a successful car salesman or trip-and-fall plaintiffs’ attorney enjoy such a higher standard of living than a lifelong servant of the public interest? (He has convinced himself he is a servant of the public interest rather than lacking in skills or ambition.) Why should some night-school lawyer lord power over him just because a congressional district in some flat and featureless farm state preferred his empty speeches and intelligence-insulting television commercials to the empty speeches and intelligence-insulting television commercials of some other guy?

Noting the rapid co-opting of the administrative apparatus in Crimea by the Russian invaders — trivial little fictions such as Kiev’s being a foreign city so far as the Simferopol airport is concerned become critical facts when they are backed by sufficient levels of terror — the economist Tyler Cowen observed drily: “Bureaucracies can act swiftly when they wish to.” They can also act with relatively sophisticated levels of coordination and great energy. Consider the case of the corruption of the Internal Revenue Service by progressive political ideologues, which has now degenerated into the mob-trial spectacle of formerly obscure revenuers invoking the Fifth Amendment in front of congressional investigators. Many journalists and investigators have been looking for ironclad proof that the IRS conspiracy against conservative activists was directed by the White House, perhaps by the president personally. The search for what is obscured in the shadows can cause us to ignore what is right in front of our noses, in broad daylight: Elected Democrats in Congress put very public pressure on the IRS to suppress and harass tea-party groups. That is not a secret; even the see-no-Democratic-evil New York Times knows who they are: Max Baucus, Jeanne Shaheen, and, especially, Chuck Schumer. I very much doubt that Barack Obama personally ordered the IRS to abuse its powers, just as I very much doubt that Vladimir Putin has taken a personal interest in terminal assignments at the Simferopol airport. Neither had to — a fact that says as much about the fragility and corruptibility of institutions as any top-down agenda would have, and perhaps more.

There is no one who can be trusted with political power.


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